and the Palimpsest of Bentley Wood
So it began here, with a forgetting of colour, the colour of flight. It began with the woodpecker dead on the grass in the back garden beneath the apple tree, its wings nailed to the ground, the wind ripping them apart. No more would grass grow under where it lay. He did not know whether this death was aimed at him, whether it was a random act of cruelty, or whether it was aimed at all of nature. Green and red feathers were dimmed by death, no more a laughing call, or swooping flight, or the prediction of rain. That was only the first sign. Storm.
The white hare danced, boxing outside his window. He knew it could not be so. He was in a waking dream, a dream so real it was as though the hare was fighting an invisible foe, and white fur tinged with blood flew in the air. In the dream awake he saw the ordinary street, cracked pavements, tarmac road, grass verge, houses and gateways begin to dissolve, and a nothingness was there. But in the ordinariness he saw gold shining, and he knew it was the end of all things. He got up at once to run but a voice said, ‘Write and draw what you watch, where you walk, in your lane and beyond as far as you can. Watch and write and draw what you capture on water-marked paper. For that will preserve the warp of your world against that which comes, and those who come. Watch those who make a weakening of the self, for they are walking. Learn to hide your whole self.’
As he awoke, he felt an emptiness and an aching loss within his heart and he knew that he had heard true. Outside his window was the apple tree, the dead patch in the grass, and beyond that the high wire fence to the school field. But it was quiet outside. It was not a school day.
He dressed quickly and went outside into the front garden. By the road, against the hedge, a white hare trembled. It did not resist his hands, and it was like a knowing from his dream that he was to put her – for the eyes told him it was a female – in his satchel. The eyes looked human. He thought he saw an old man dressed in black on the corner of the road – the man with the scarred, marred face who lived in Bentley Wood. But when he looked again there was no one there. He felt irrationally guilty and wondered if he had been seen, but all that was there was a robin on the rubbish bin.
Everywhere there were people who worked for the Fowler. The Fowler had recently banned parents from teaching their own children. Every child now had to go to a controlled school.
He began to walk along the road on his way to Bentley Wood. The Wood had other names but these had been defaced. He thought he might release the hare there. As he turned the corner of the lane, he jumped. The old man was there looking at him. He found it hard to look at his face, but the eyes were kindly.
‘Need to learn how to hide yourself, I reckon,’ said the old man. Part of him wanted to stop and ask him why he said that, but he kept on walking, giving him a surprised sideways look as he went.
‘Go to Friend’s Meadow,’ said the old man quietly. And then he was gone.
He always felt better amongst the ancient woodland. Friend’s Meadow felt too close to the approach road and the houses so he went further into the woods. He followed the meadow that ran between the two sections of woodland, as if he was following an invisible line on the ground. He was being pulled to the left and to the top of this ancient piece of land.
Suddenly he could sense the rich smell of cow dung. The ghost cattle had been in this part recently. They were called ghost cattle because they had the ability to appear suddenly without being noticed.
He felt he should stop at the spring that bubbled up into a shallow pond. He knew for a moment that he was safe and not being watched. He knelt down and carefully took the white hare out his bag. The hare looked at him calmly. He carefully washed the blood out of its fur, but there seemed to be no wound; it was as if the water had healed the wound.
The hare watched him with onyx eyes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two other hares appear, watching him. He was still. He noticed that the cut on his thumb had gone when he had put it in the water.
He knew the hare had wanted him to see this. He could not explain it to himself, but he felt in that moment as if he knew something, as if he knew they were ancient watchers. In watching, they were guarding something, something they had shown him. And then they were gone.
He knew it was time to go home. It wasn’t good to linger and draw attention to this place. He went home via a different route, picking up conkers as he walked to give himself a reason for being out.
As he walked home he thought about the old man. Mac, he was known as. Hudor knew that he worked in Bentley Wood below the big house. The big house was where the Master lived – the Fowler as the locals called him. Hudor was allowed in the Wood, which had open spaces and meadows and lakes, although it wasn’t open – it was all fenced off. He was allowed in because his Dad worked the guard dogs in the Wood. The old man, Mac, also helped with the dogs. He felt he should talk to Mac. He was excited about the white hares, but he didn’t want to think about the woodpecker.
Hudor wished he were invisible. He could imagine his skin peeling off him if he were to be caught in the gaze of the Fowler.
He was where he shouldn’t be, walking as stealthily as he could. He could hear his breathing and see his breath in the early morning frosty air. Suddenly somebody laughed, and he nearly jumped out of his shoes.
He looked around. A bird with a red crown and a green body walked round a tree trunk and out of sight. Hudor could see nothing else.
Hudor walked on; he needed to get to the top of the hill. Suddenly the green bird with the red crown undulated past him. It had a yellow rump. He heard the laugh again. It was the bird. The bird landed on the tree. ‘Yaffle, yaffle,’ it laughed.
As the bird laughed for the third time, Hudor was suddenly aware of black clouds gathering, faster than he had ever seen before. He needed to be quick.
It was then that the bird spoke. He would remember that moment for the rest of his life. As the clouds seemed to speed up, time around him seemed to slow down.
It was an oracle. He knew that now, but he didn’t know it then. ‘Follow the scryer to the path of the seed and the underwritten sentence or your soul lose…’
The bird turned its head and long beak to one side and looked at him with golden eyes and black pupils. Suddenly the eyes blazed with a light that left him with a longing in his heart for he knew not what.
And then it was gone. A green woodpecker! he thought. He didn’t know there were any left. And one had died in his garden.
He was by now on top of the hill. In his vision it was a dark night, and there was no light pollution, only a clear sky streaming with starlight. Silence was all he could hear. His heart strummed with joy and his mind was as clear as the sky.
He was floating just a foot above the ground, pale clothed. He could see in front of him an open book. It was out of reach, but he knew he must find it in real life.
His eyes felt suddenly bright with light, and he could see that underwriting lay faintly on the upturned page. Overwriting in a different language and pen could also be seen.
He felt as though he was part of nature, his body humming with the music of every particle. But he also sensed a counter-vibration, something wrong, a storm coming. As he watched the sky, the moon began to turn red.
He remembered it all as if it were yesterday. Then he was back in this dimension, trying to get home without being seen, ordinary daylight all around him.
At supper he asked his father about Mac.
‘Old Macarius?’ said his Dad. ‘Not all who wander are lost.’
This didn’t help much, thought Hudor. He knew his dad liked to give short riddling answers, often from ancient books that had been lost.
‘Yes, old Mac,’ said Hudor.
‘He’s one of the last peregrini,’ said his father. Hudor didn’t like to ask more, but he didn’t think calling him a falcon was particularly illuminating.
‘Have a chat with him,’ added his Dad, unexpectedly. ‘Ask him to show you some of his — woodcraft.’
‘I will,’ said Hudor, and he did.